Mahavira, the 24th Tirthanka

(c 562 BC - 490 BC)

Indian Teacher who Established Jainism

The Life of Mahavira

Mahavira ("great hero") was born Vardhamana in Kundapura (Bihar state, North India) around 562 BC. There are many legends concerning his life - even his year of birth is disputed - and the story of his life has similarities to the founder of Budhism. He is considered to be the final and greatest of 24 Tirthankaras, founders of Jainism.

He was born into a royal family being the son of a local king called Siddartha. He married a princess, Yasoda, and had a daughter, Anojja. Both his parents died when he was 28 and two years later he renounced his throne, family and wealth and became an ascetic. He pulled out his hair and threw away his clothes, vowing to not interfere in anything that befell him.

Mahavira decided to follow a fivefold discipline:

He meditated and endured austerity and deprivation. He meditated or walked in the sun during the summer, and meditated outside naked in the winter. When walking he kept his eyes on the ground to avoid stepping on any insect. He lived by himself rather than with others. The only food he ate was what he obtained by begging. He regularly fasted, sometimes for a month.

For six years he travelled with another ascetic, Gosala. They were often insulted, beaten up and even imprisoned in Bengal.

In later life Mahavira founded an order of monks and nuns. Adherents had to agree to nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-possession and chastity.

At the age of 72, Mahavira fasted to death (salekhana).

There are 4 million Jains, mostly in Gujarat state in India. Unlike the contemporary Buddhism, Jainism did not spread to neighbouring countries.

The Teachings of Jainism

There are five disciplines to be followed by strict Jains:

The symbol of ahisma (non-violence)

Jainism has its own cosmology. The universe exists as a series of layers, both heavens and hells (seven of the latter). It had no beginning or end. It is an eternal universe governed by natural laws with no ultimate deity or creator. People are endlessly reincarnated unless their achive nirvana by ascetisism. All souls are equal and are capable of reaching nirvana.

Compassion for all life, both human and non-human, is the central idea of Jainism. Human life is especially valued and all killing, even by execution for crimes, is considered abhorrent. Its vegetarianism has influenced other religions in India (Buddhism, Hinduism). Gujarati food has been most influenced, not only being vegetarian but also lightly spiced. The Jains are normally very tolerant of other religions even administering temples for other faiths. In the 20th century, Jain ideas of non-violence influenced Mahatma Ghandi's non-violent fight for independence.

Jain temples are usually very elaborate. The Tirthankas are usually displayed as 24 identical sculptures with a small identifying mark at the bottom. Mahavira's is a lion. One of the holiest symbols of Jainism is the fylfot (also known as the swastika).

The fylfot (swastika)
is one of the holiest
of Jain symbols.

All images external copyright.

Books From and

KryssTal Related Pages

Inventions from the period that includes Indian culture at the time of Mahavira.

These are words found in English from Sanskrit.

A summary of the world's religions.

External Mahavira / Jainism Links

These links will open in a separate window

Biography of Mahavira.

A summary of Jainism.